An extraordinary thing happened last month: US prosecutors admitted the government messed up.
Well, technically they admitted that a judge could conceivably decide that the government might have possibly messed up enough to warrant a new trial. But still.
As part of a unusual deal brokered between his defense team and chagrined US attorneys, Eric McDavid, who in 2007 was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison on domestic terrorism charges, walked free on January 8 after the government told a judge it had "inadvertently" failed to hand over thousands of pages of FBI documents to his defense counsel in his original trial.
McDavid, 37, served three days short of nine years in custody before US District Judge Morrison England agreed to reduce his sentence to a lone count of conspiracy and released him on time served.
"This is one of the most unusual things I've had to deal with, if not the most unusual, since I started on the bench in 1996 and on this court since 2002," England said, according to court transcripts. "I've never heard or seen of anything like this."
As part of his deal, McDavid waived his right to sue the government. He is now a free man, but the conclusion of his case is an embarrassing coda to the Bush-era surveillance of radical environmentalists and anti-capitalists in the years following the 9/11 attacks.
McDavid and two other radical environmentalists, Zach Jenson and Lauren Weiner, were convicted in 2007 of conspiring to blow up a dam, cellphone towers, and a US Forest Service lab after a paid FBI informant—an unassuming 18-year-old known only as "Anna"—infiltrated their group, egged them on, and exposed them.
That would have likely been the end of McDavid's story, but a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by two of his supporters dredged up nearly 2,500 pages of FBI documents that prosecutors had previously insisted did not exist.
The tranche of files led the US attorneys office in Sacramento to turn over even more documents that it had—according to a letter to McDavid's lawyers—"inadvertently not disclosed during discovery." Among the documents were flirty notes between McDavid and Anna, as well as a request from an FBI agent for a polygraph exam on Anna to test the veracity of her statements. All of which McDavid's attorneys say would have been crucial in bolstering McDavid's entrapment defense.
"It's somewhere along the continuum of mistake, malfeasance, and malevolence."
"[Anna] fomented the alleged conspiracy, literally herding defendants together from around the country for meetings, badgering them to form a plan, and mocking and berating them when they showed disinterest," McDavid's lawyers Ben Rosenfeld and Mark Vermeulen wrote in a motion last year.
The Sacramento Bee described England, who presided over McDavid's original ten-day trial, as "clearly exasperated" and "sometimes stopping to hold his head in his left hand" during last month's hearing.
"I know he's not necessarily a choirboy, but he doesn't deserve to go through this, either," England said. "It's not fair."
Prosecutors and top brass from the US Attorney's office, none of whom were involved in the original trial, had little to offer for explanation.
"We don't know exactly why they weren't turned over," John Vincent, chief of the US Attorney's criminal division, told England. According to the US Attorney's office, the documents were sitting in an FBI file in Sacramento.
In a statement released following the hearing, the US Attorney's Office of Eastern California said that "although those documents do not directly bear upon whether the defendant committed the underlying acts… the United States agreed that it is conceivable that a court could conclude that the failure to produce them required a retrial."
This is a master class in ass-covering, impressive even by government standards. Note how it starts by reaffirming McDavid's guilt, and then avoids admitting any wrongdoing by saying that the government agreed, in its great magnanimity, that others might come to the conclusion that it had seriously screwed the pooch
Some prosecutors were a bit more forthright.
"We absolutely admit that we made a mistake, but there was no deliberate, knowing withholding of any documents," said First Assistant US Attorney Philip A. Ferrari in January.
But the notion that the FBI and prosecutors simply misplaced thousands of pages of documents from a highly touted anti-terror investigation and then rediscovered them years later is hard to swallow for many who watched McDavid's case unfold.
"It's somewhere along the continuum of mistake, malfeasance, and malevolence," McDavid's lawyer Rosenfeld said in a phone interview. "The point is that only the government can explain what level of mistake this was, and the public should demand that explanation."
In an interview, Will Potter, an independent journalist who has written extensively about the government's surveillance of radical environmental groups, called the government's claim that it accidentally failed to hand over the documents "complete nonsense."
"The FBI and prosecutors have been intimately aware of how many boundaries have been pushed and crossed along the way, and they've relentlessly defended it," Potter said. "Jurors came afterward and said they thought they were misled. In recordings, the court heard [Anna] constantly berating McDavid for not taking action. Every step of the way the government pushed and pushed to get the conviction at any cost."
The Green Scare
McDavid first met Anna in 2004 at an invitation-only anarchist gathering in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a heady time for both radical leftists and federal law enforcement, which had been given broad discretion and nearly unlimited resources to root out terrorism threats. Love was in the air.
McDavid, 26 at the time, was an on-again, off-again college student from Auburn, California, with a muddled interest in anarchism and environmentalism.
Anna was a no-nonsense girl with pink hair, a short camo skirt, and a keffiyeh around her neck. She told McDavid she had hitchhiked to the gathering. In reality, she had flown out on the FBI's dime.
She had gotten a taste for informant work after infiltrating an anti-globalization protest group for a paper for her community college class. Impressed by her initiative, a police officer in her class put her in touch with the Miami Police Department, which in turn referred her to the FBI. In a flattering 2008 profile in Elle magazine, Anna said she was a patriotic hawk who wanted to do something for her country after 9/11.
She was a godsend for the FBI. Radicals seemed to be able to sniff out professional undercover officers before they even stepped through the door. But Anna was a natural—quick-thinking, reliable, and able to move through activist circles with ease. She didn't walk like a cop or otherwise exude cop-ness.
McDavid didn't know it when he first laid his smitten eyes on Anna in Iowa, but he had just been snared in what activists would later dub the "green scare," an allusion to the anti-communist red scare of the 1950s.
"The only reason they got on the radar was because they had a political viewpoint," Mark Reichel, McDavid's lawyer at his original trial, said in an interview. "At the same time, the head of the Justice Department was testifying before Congress, saying, 'No, we don't do that. We don't spy on people because of political reasons.'"
Indeed, here's former FBI director Robert Mueller speaking at a press conference announcing the 2006 indictment of 11 "eco-terrorists" responsible for an estimated $80 million in property damages: "The FBI becomes involved, as it did in this case, only when volatile talk crosses the line into violence and criminal activity."
This is a key point in McDavid's entrapment defense. Contrary to Mueller's reassurances, McDavid and Jenson's rhetoric when Anna first met them in '04 was about as violent as the average Rage Against the Machine album.
Anna caught up with McDavid again in '05 in Philadelphia, where he was staying with two friends, Jenson and Weiner. Anna reported back to the FBI that McDavid had become thoroughly radicalized since their first meeting.
Anna's FBI handlers put her on McDavid, Jenson, and Weiner full-time and outfitted her with the finest in spy gear: a bugged '96 Chevy Lumina that she used to drive the group around. The FBI also provided Anna with a small cabin in the Sierra Nevada foothills that was to act as the quartet's base of operations. She paid for groceries and even doled out spending money to the group, sometimes in $100 bills. She wasn't old enough to buy beer yet, but Anna was passing along fake bomb recipes from the FBI to the trio.
Anna's recordings of late-night bull sessions showed the trio talking about bombing targets like cell phone towers and fish hatcheries. Later in court, the three activists would try to play off the conversations as purely hypothetical, the musings of some stoned anarchists with delusions of grandeur.
"Anarchists usually just talk shit," Jenson said in a 2012 Outside story on the case, "but they never really do that much."
In court, the bumbling anarchists became cold, calculating terrorists.
But one day, the group drove to a Kmart in Auburn to pick up ingredients for a bomb test. McDavid was sitting on the back of Anna's car in the parking lot, waiting for Jenson and Weiner to return, when he heard the automatic locks on the car doors click shut. He looked in. Anna was on her cell phone. Moments later, black SUVs screeched into the parking lot, and he was surrounded by heavily armed agents from the Joint Terrorism Task Force. In an interview with Democracy Now!—his first after being released from prison—McDavid said that that was the moment he realized Anna was a snitch.
McDavid, Jenson, and Weiner were charged with conspiracy based on their recorded conversations, their purchase of a book that included bomb-making instructions, their scouting of potential targets, and their purchase of bomb-making materials at Kmart.
For the government's prosecution of radical environmentalists, Potter said that the McDavid case "represented a turning point in a couple of ways.
"Around September 11, the actions by the radical environmental movement had really subsided significantly," Potter said. "There were not a lot of crimes by the Animal Liberation Front or Earth Liberation Front. There were very heavy prosecutions of a few cases, but the climate as a whole, there wasn't a lot happening. The McDavid case represented a shift. They manufactured terrorism plots, and that's precisely what McDavid's case was all about."
In court, the bumbling anarchists became cold, calculating terrorists. US Attorney McGregor Scott claimed the group's plot to bomb the Nimbus dam, had it not been thwarted by Anna, would have made "what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina look like a Sunday pancake breakfast." (A spokesman for the dam later said that blowing up the gates would just cause water to "trickle" down the American and Sacramento rivers.)
Anna testified that she woke up in the cabin one night with McDavid looming above her holding an eight-inch hunting knife. Meanwhile, Jenson and Weiner both flipped and agreed to testify against McDavid in return for lighter sentences. Years later, Jenson would provide McDavid's lawyer with a sworn declaration saying he was pressured to contort his testimony to agree with the government's version of events.
"I became very aware that if I did not testify to the facts that the government felt occurred, which I did not believe occurred, that my plea bargain would be taken away and I would be charged with the major federal charge and would very likely receive a 20-year sentence," Jenson said. "This was a lot of pressure for me to handle."
The jury also received confusing, sometimes contradictory instructions. They were told entrapment required a government "agent," and Judge England told the jurors from the bench that Anna was an agent, but then later sent a written note to the jury that she was not one.
The jury was also told, when considering McDavid's predisposition for violence, to limit the timeframe to June 2005 and onward, not from when Anna first began reporting on him in 2004.
Of the 12 jurors, ten would later go on the record to various publications expressing serious doubts about the government's case against McDavid. "I hope he gets a new trial," Diane Bennett, one of the jurors, told Elle in 2008. "I'm not happy with the one he got."
England sentenced McDavid to 235 months in prison on an enhanced terrorism charge. He spent the first 28 months of his sentence in solitary confinement. Jenson and Weiner served six months and two weeks in prison, respectively. Anna consulted for the FBI for a bit longer before giving up the spy game and trying to move on with her life.
But perhaps more interesting than the vagaries of the case is what never made it to the jury's ears. During the trial, Reichel filed dozens of motions to suppress, dismiss, and otherwise muck up the government's case against McDavid. Among those were numerous motions for discovery for the FBI files on McDavid and Anna.
"The hell that we had been through for so long, we knew we had to pursue it, but it was like, 'God, is this even going to work?'"
"The FBI filed responses in writing saying none of this stuff exists. No cell phone records, no polygraphs, no internal FBI reports, no letters," Reichel said. "So I did a FOIA and it came back with not much, maybe 20 pages, items of discovery I already had."
Reichel also filed a motion to dismiss the case based on McDavid's infatuation with Anna. The prosecution's response to Reichel's motion: "The defendant's claim of a romantic relationship between him and the informant is categorically untrue."
"I Think You and I Could Be Great"
McDavid lost an appeal before the Ninth Circuit, and the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. He would have languished in prison for the rest of his long sentence had it not been for the dogged work of two of his supporters, Jenny Esquivel and Evan Tucker.
Tucker, now living in Spain, had started a group called Sacramento Prisoner Support in 2004 to help activists who had been targeted by the federal government. In 2008, Esquivel and Tucker filed a FOIA request for McDavid's FBI file.
"Jenny and I always felt that the government was hiding evidence from the defense," Tucker said. "How could a person who was investigated by the FBI for one and a half years and then convicted of a federal crime not have an FBI file? So we decided to do our own request. Originally they told us there was nothing, but we kept pushing and finally, one day, several thousand pages of documents showed up in our PO box."
Tucker says the FOIA sleuthing revealed the FBI was also interested in him.
"They interviewed people about me, sat outside my house, and followed me around," Tucker said. "They sent informants to our fundraisers and had them report back on me as well. There is a lot I still don't know about the investigation because they would only give me half my file and even that was heavily redacted."
With a batch of fresh evidence in hand, McDavid's lawyers filed a writ for habeas corpus in 2010. The government continued to fight the appeal, but in November 2014 it handed over even more files that should have been given to McDavid's defense counsel in his original trial. The new documents included mushy notes from McDavid professing his interest in Anna, as well as never-before-seen responses from Anna leading him on.
In a 2005 email six months before McDavid's arrest, Anna wrote, "I think you and I could be great, but we have LOTS of little kinks to work out. I hope in Indiana we can spend more quality time together, and really chat about life and our things."
McDavid replied three days later in his idiosyncratic syntax: "hey cheeka, so far as us B'n great, that i think is an understatement… along w/the 'LOTS of little kinks 2 wk out'… but if u aint learning, u aint live'n… & I do think we could learn a lot from each other."
It's fair to say they learned a lot from each other, although Anna and McDavid both clarified that their relationship was never physical. For the most part, it seemed one-sided, with Anna brushing McDavid off and telling him to wait until after their "mission."
The US Attorney's Office also handed over a request for a polygraph test on Anna. The request form said the polygraph was to "confirm veracity of [Anna's] reporting prior to the expenditure of substantial efforts and money based on source's reporting."
But the polygraph test never took place. No documents provided by the FBI or the US Attorney's Office explain why, and the name of the US prosecutor who signed off on the polygraph request was redacted for "privacy" reasons.
I asked Reichel if he was surprised at the contents of the documents, considering the FBI had insisted they didn't exist. He replied with the typical bravado of a criminal defense attorney who's been proven right.
"You remember that Johnny Carson bit, Carnac the Magnificent, where he would hold the letter up to his head and predict what was inside?" Reichel said. "I knew exactly what was in those documents."
But McDavid's release was far from certain. Even after securing a deal with the US attorneys office, no one was sure how Judge England, who had previously thrown the book at McDavid, would react to such a bizarre request.
"The hell that we had been through for so long, we knew we had to pursue it, but it was like, 'God is this even going to work?'" Esquivel said in an interview. "It was nine years of struggle and fighting and hoping against hope. A lot of hard work and luck came together."
There are lingering questions surrounding McDavid's case. According to Esquivel, the FBI is still withholding 900 pages of documents. And although McDavid cannot sue under the terms of his plea agreement to a single conspiracy charge, a lawyer for Weiner told the Guardian she is considering suing to get her own conviction lifted.
There is also the case of Steve Lapham, the assistant US attorney in McDavid's case. Lapham fought McDavid's Habeas appeal tooth and nail.
"The government concedes that a relatively small amount of information pertaining to the case was apparently not disclosed to the defense," Lapham wrote in response to the appeal. "However, the omitted material was either inculpatory or benign. None of the omitted material was exculpatory."
It was only after Lapham departed the US Attorney's Office, according to Tucker, that the government showed any interest in releasing the withheld documents. Lapham is now a judge for the Sacramento County Superior Court.
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